Stress is one of the leading causes of illness in the United States. Indeed, nearly 66 percent of all signs and symptoms presented in doctors’ offices in the U.S. are stress induced.
The effects of stress include nail biting, anxiety, a racing mind, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behavior, unending worry, muscle tension and spasm, poor appetite or too great an appetite, digestive disorders, constipation, insomnia, poor blood flow, belabored breathing, neck pain, shoulder tension and the possible onset or continuation of bad habits such as dependence on alcohol, drugs, painkillers, food and caffeine.
Any one of these things by itself can trigger any number of different types of illnesses. But when these forces of antagonism are combined (as they generally are when triggered by stress), the health problems often become chronic and insufferable.
The Psychology of Stress
Stress is an interesting phenomenon. It means different things to different people. What we each individually consider to be stressful is largely a matter of our perception. Indeed, our perceptions are our realities and so what we think is posing a threat is actually doing so by virtue of our established belief system. Moreover, there are many kinds of stressors—physical (the response to being frightened), emotional (loss of a loved one), psychological (obsessive thoughts), spiritual (loss of faith) and psychosomatic (the need for attention).
Physiologically, stress is responsible for initiating the fight or flight response in the face of perceived danger. This means that when we are confronted with a danger, our body automatically prepares us to deal with the coming stressful situation by focusing our attention, pumping more blood into our muscles and sending adrenaline through our system to ready it for action. It is precisely this response that helps protect the body and return it again to homeostasis. However, too much stress, or stress left unresolved for too long a time, can lead to biological damage.
You see, at the onset of perceived danger the body is quickly jolted into fight or flight mode, which means stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream. However, at the conclusion of the danger episode, the body does not as automatically calm down and return to homeostasis. In fact, it takes a great deal of time for the body to return to so-called normal conditions. But often this cannot happen because another stressor may present itself (e.g., sitting in traffic, standing in line at the bank, missing a deadline) and this will send our body into “code red” mode all over again.
The effects of such prolonged or recurring stress is that it keeps the autonomic nervous system from balancing, which can lead to problems with the gastrointestinal tract, the digestive system, the respiratory system and the neuronendocrine system. Stress can also lead to depression, anxiety, muscle tension and insomnia. All of these are known triggers of various mental and physical (mind/body) illnesses and diseases.
A Stressful Example
The vicious cause and effect cycle of stress is readily seen in our workforce, wherein productivity and the meeting of deadlines and bottom-line expectations lead us down a harrowing headache path. Consider the average day in the life of a corporate worker: Wakes up early, skips breakfast and rushes to the office; begins harboring stress and anxiety while watching the clock sitting in traffic; sits all day at the computer and talking on the phone; takes breaks not to stretch and take deep breaths of fresh air, but to artificially stimulate the body to work harder through taking a cigarette and coffee break. After that it’s back to work pushing productivity in an attempt to meet expectations wherein stress and tensions rise and take hold of the body; after work, to relax—office co-workers are joined for happy hour—wherein the body is nourished with more caffeine, cigarettes and now alcohol. Round and round, day after day, until the body rebels and “tells” you something is very wrong by way of an ulcer, gastrointestinal disorder or chronic pain in some manifestation.
Stress is killing us!
Ten Stress Busters
The idea behind living a stress-free life is to remove the things in your life that are causing you to be stressed. Of course this is easier said than done, but it is truly the only way to not have stress. Here are 10 simple things you can do on a daily basis to reduce the symptoms of stress.
- Walk outside for at least 20 continuous minutes every day.
- Take the stairs whenever possible.
- Take 10 deep belly breaths every hour.
- Drink plenty of pure water—at least 10 glasses a day.
- Avoid sugar and caffeine in all forms.
- Regulate sleep and wake cycles to a consistent daily routine.
- Prioritize your life, work, family and personal time and activities.
- Do six shoulder shrugs whenever you are tense.
- Realize that when people criticize and judge they are labeling an “image” of you and not you personally.
- Realize that you are worth so much more than the sum of your titles, money and belongings.
A good stress-relief program should be sought and followed. Good programs generally include various forms of meditation, visualization, qigong, yoga, acupressure and bio-feedback. Not all programs contain everything, but engaging in any or some of these will go a long way to reclaiming years for your life.
—Dr. Mark Wiley